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NASCAR vs. The Blade Runner : Murder, Manslaughter or Mistake

Two recent cases demonstrate the elements required to establish criminal homicide and the subcategories contained within that criminal charge. While states vary as to the specific names of criminal homicide subcategories, they are generally classified into one of three categories: murder, manslaughter, and involuntary manslaughter.

In Pennsylvania, criminal homicide is defined as the intentional, knowing, reckless, or negligent killing of another human being with murder being the most serious form of it. While manslaughter falls under homicide, it, unlike murder, is an intentional killing without justification. The lack of justification is usually an intense feeling (heat of passion) or a mistaken belief (imperfect self-defense). Involuntary manslaughter, while still a killing, lacks any intentionality and the prosecution is only required to prove either recklessness or gross negligence.

In New York, a grand jury recently decided against bringing criminal charges against three time NASCAR champion Tony Stewart for the death of fellow driver, Kevin Ward, Jr. If you recall, video showed Stewart’s car striking Ward who had exited his vehicle following a crash which Stewart allegedly caused or at least initiated. New York prosecutors asked the grand jury to consider second degree manslaughter and criminal negligent homicide charges against Stewart. Manslaughter in New York, similar to Pennsylvania, is a felony. Unlike Pennsylvania, however, New York does not require intentionality but only recklessness. The second charge, negligent homicide, does not require that the prosecution establish any intentionality or recklessness but only negligence, a much lower form of liability.

Second degree manslaughter in New York is a Class C felony which is very similar to Pennsylvania’s Third Degree Felony (Pennsylvania uses a number as opposed to a letter system). Negligent homicide is a Class E felony and would more than likely be considered a misdemeanor charge in Pennsylvania because the maximum penalty is five (5) years (a First Degree Misdemeanor in Pennsylvania carries a five (5) maximum).

Obviously, New York State prosecutors did not believe that Stewart’s actions amounted to an intentional act but were reckless since the video showed other drivers avoiding Ward. Given Stewart’s professional driving skills, the prosecution’s theory was more than likely that Stewart could have avoided killing Ward had he acted in the same manner as other drivers in a similar situation when Ward approached the race track. Many legal expert believe that the case turned on Ward’s autopsy which showed that Ward had Marijuana in his blood at the time of his death.

Unlike the Tony Stewart case, South African prosecutors believed that Oscar Pistorius (aka The “Blade Runner”) committed murder when he shot and killed his girlfriend and South African model and law student, Reeva Steenkamp, in his home. The South African government charged Pistorius with murder along with the lesser included offense of “Culpable Homicide” which is the South African version of Pennsylvania’s and New York’s manslaughter crimes.

Unlike Stewart, Pistorius admitted that he acted with the intent to kill but mistook his girlfriend for an intruder in his home. Ultimately, the Court acquitted Pistorius of murder but found him guilty of culpable homicide. While a mixed verdict, this is an absolute defense victory. Pistorius, at the very most, will not serve more than 5 years in prison. Further, the conviction does not carry a mandatory minimum sentence. Given that he has no criminal record and obviously overcome tremendous obstacles to become an Olympic athlete, many legal experts believe that he many serve less than 3 years in prison! Some even believe that he may not serve any jail time at all!

To put this defense victory in perspective, consider that the Court found Pistorius guilty of “imperfect self-defense” despite strong evidence that he never attempted to identify who was actually in his home. Unlike the United States, South Africa does not have very strong self-defense laws. In South Africa, incredibly, it is illegal to shoot an intruder in your home unless that intruder poses a threat to you (i.e. approaches with a weapon, etc). This issue presented the Pistorius defense team with a major problem as Steenkamp was unarmed and Pistorius shot through a door, which prevented him from obviously identifying not only the victim’s identity but also the threat level element which South African law requires.

These Stewart and Pistorius show the degrees of criminal homicide. The degree of crime is often the defense’s strongest argument as the defense may concede that accused committed the deadly act. The proportionality of individual’s response could distinguish a killing or serious assault from a self-defense, imperfect or not, from a murder. The difference is drastic and consequences are literally life altering.

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